From slave to university student

January 20, 2017

Poverty forced Brazilian, Rafael Ferreira, into slavery when he was 12 years old. Five years later he was rescued and is now about to start university, with the help of the ILO.


Under a sweltering sun, earning just 5 Brazilian Reals a day (US$1.5), 12- year-old Rafael Ferreira da Silva slept in a shack in the woods. He used to eat what was given him – mostly rice and beans- and drink the same water as bulls and other animals.

He had to work for five long years on a farm in rural Jauru in Brazil’s Mato Grosso province to help pay off his father’s debts. When he wanted to leave they told him that he was still in debt and had to keep working.

As a young boy he loved school, using all the money he had to buy school supplies, pencils, erasers and notebooks. When the supplies ran out he could no longer attend but always dreamed of going back. “We led a very simple life. My father left my mother and I stayed with him. He sent me to work because it was necessary. People enslaved are in fragile situations, and, therefore, forced to work, work, work,” says Rafael.

He was rescued at the age of 17 during an operation conducted by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour.


After being freed, Rafael received psychosocial care and took several courses through the Integrated Action Project, which was developed in 2009 by Brazil’s Public Ministry of Labour (MPT / MT), the Regional Labour and Employment office (SRTE-MT) and the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT), with ILO technical and institutional support.

The project offers education and vocational training to people in high-risk situations or who have been rescued from slavery-like working conditions.

“The project arose from the joint efforts of several institutions engaged in the fight against slave labour in order to offer emergency alternatives, particularly with regard to prevention and assistance to victims,” explains MPT prosecutor, Thiago Gurjão.

New opportunities

After completing the training, Rafael worked in a supermarket, on a farm and in a slaughterhouse. He went on to become, at 24, a real estate agent and university student.

“I study civil engineering, and I am paying my studies with my own money. I am the one who decides on my destiny now,” he says.

“If Brazil were to invest in education, children would not be enslaved and adults would have good job opportunities, and be treated with more respect and dignity, rather than end up working in degrading conditions,” he adds.

As many as 700 people have benefited from the project since it was set up. It has now been replicated in three other Brazilian states – Bahia, Rio de Janeiro and Ceara.

Collaborations between institutions and partner businesses are set up in order to build “a bridge between people who look for decent work and businesses that want to offer such an opportunity,” says Gurjão.

According to UN project coordinator Antonio Carlos Mello, “Rafael’s story shows how the Integrated Action Project, beyond offering training opportunities, gives its beneficiaries the chance to dream again, to plan for the future and overcome the difficult circumstances in which they grew up.”


Based on a story from Keka Werneck and Marcio Camilo (Forest Comunicação)